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Recently I wrote a blog about a woman who was murdered in Afghanistan called, “One Death Too Many“. I was angry and upset that I had so few people actually reading it. I went back and reread it, thinking perhaps the writing was bad or the content was somehow lacking. It wasn’t. It was a good story. I commented on this situation to a writer friend who told me that if my sex stories drew such attention, perhaps I should only write on that, give the audience what they want. I came away from that conversation sad and disillusioned.

I’m a bit of an odd duck when it comes to writing. I don’t do “target writing” which is setting a goal for yourself and reaching it every day such as a certain word or page count. I don’t really have set times when I write so sometimes I will be writing for 10 or 12 hours a day and other days I can barely get myself to concentrate for two. I’m undisciplined and don’t even own a dictionary (there are far too many online for me to justify spending money or wasting the paper so I can own a book). I actually <GASP!> use the spell and grammar checker on word. Grammar’s my weak point so I use it to see if I’m overusing passive sentences again. Yes, I’m in love with the passive. Damn thing is like a stalker and I keep feeding into the obsession. It’s a cycle we’re both trying to break.

The one thing I have refused to compromise on is the story. Early in my career I had the opportunity to work with an editor who was old old school. He was crotchety, as editors often are, but he knew his stuff and he taught me some very valuable things including my current “three-time” style. I will write a raw piece, edit it once, rewrite, edit twice, rewrite and it goes off. This man told me that if you can’t fix the story in that time you had to cross it off as a loss or give it to someone else. I’ve handed many pieces to fellow writers because I had trouble getting a handle on the story. I don’t mind. They’ve done the same for me.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I ever got from this man was never compromise the story. He let me know there’s a lot of play you can do within a story to keep an editor happy, but never, never, never compromise the heart of a story. A good editor will understand that and I’ve worked with some great editors in the past. Those words of wisdom have been my signpost ever since I heard them.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. Whether it’s a greeting card, an instructional manual, War and Peace or a journalism piece. You find that heart of the story and help it grow. That’s the writer’s job. That’s it. The writer does not bow to magazine editors, corporate managers, government bodies or even the audience. The writer is the story’s slave. That’s it. The only obligation a writer has is to the story. Sorry, readers, but you come further down on my list of importance.

That’s not to say my audience isn’t taken into consideration. However, that comes during the editing process and even then I won’t sacrifice something in the story in order to placate my audience. If I think the story is better served by a graphic description of something then it goes in. If you’re too delicate a reader to read it, well, there’s a lot on the Internet to read.

Too many times I see magazines and newspapers bowing to the advertiser’s dollar. I have only written one piece I’m ashamed of and it was a piece to sell some shoes that I clearly saw had some very fundamental design flaws. Years later, it came out that others saw those same flaws and those shoes don’t sell so well now but I did write an article singing their praises when I didn’t believe in them. That’s something I’ll never do again. Here’s some advice I will give readers that I didn’t find out until much later in my career; you can walk away from any story you like. The editor may not be happy with you, but you have a choice; write something you’re ashamed of  or don’t.

I’ve been told I shouldn’t write certain articles as they might make someone look bad. For example, I’ve worked for the Government of Alberta and I remain highly critical of them. It’s bad form, old chap, to criticize your former employer. Too bad. Suck it up, princess. The Government of Alberta is a big enough of a grinding machine to be able to field a bit of criticism.

The advice I was given by my fellow writer, to write what the audience wants, seems sound at first. However, I’m doing a disservice to my readers if all I do is placate them. I believe people come and read me not because they agree or disagree but because they want to hear what I have to say. To water that down in order to increase my readership is an insult to my readers and myself.

Being a writer is the most important thing in my life. I know that means I’m a slave to the story and I need to do what’s necessary to help it grow. It’s tempting to write what’s popular. That pays. A writer is often poor and if a magazine says “just tweak this” or “just take this out” it seems a small thing to do. There are times when changing something or taking out things don’t compromise to the story. Then there are times when you need to stand your ground. If you have a reputation for bringing the best story possible, an editor will trust your instincts on it. That’s an editor you want to work with.

It’s said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I say the road to mediocrity is paved with writers trying to be popular. wherever that editor who taught me so much is, I hope he’s looking on and knows how valuable his knowledge was to me.

December 2018
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